Photo: Llamas on walkway at Machu Picchu

Llama-rich landscapes provide a backdrop for Turn Right at Machu Picchu, in which author Mark Adams retraces Hiram Bingham's adventures.

Photograph by Laurie Chamberlain, Corbis

By Don George

Book of the Month: Turn Right at Machu Picchu, by Mark Adams

With the centennial of Hiram Bingham III’s finding of Machu Picchu on July 24, we decided to train the Trip Lit binoculars this month on Mark Adams’s rollicking new historical-homage-cum-adventure-saga, Turn Right at Machu Picchu. Adams does a masterful job interweaving descriptions of Bingham’s life, ambitions, and expeditions—two of which were partly underwritten by the National Geographic Society—with a riveting account of his own adventures retracing Bingham’s storied, and sometimes slippery, steps. Those steps, electrifyingly introduced to the world in a special April 1913 issue of National Geographic magazine devoted entirely to Bingham’s account and 250 photographs, spotlit and saved a global archaeological treasure and laid the foundations for what has become Peru’s third largest industry, tourism.

Adams proves an engaging and enlightening guide to Bingham and to Peru. A longtime editor of adventure travel magazines, Adams is intimately familiar with the literary landscape of the wild—and, it turns out, charmingly unfamiliar with its real-world counterpart (the last time he’d slept in a tent, he confesses, was in 1978, and that was in his backyard). Despite this lack of preparedness, he engages a Peru-savvy Australian wilderness addict as his guide and sets out to follow Bingham’s trail along the Capac Nan, or Inca highway, through Choquequirao, Vitcos, Espíritu Pampa, and Machu Picchu. His plucky, good-humored embrace of the challenges this quest entails is delightful, as he and his companion scale precipitous peaks, slash through the jungle, and endure torrential downpours, all in the effort to uncover what Bingham saw and try to make sense of it all.

Adams’s knowledge of Bingham’s explorations and writings and of Inca history and culture is impressive, as is his ability to bring to life the varied coca-chewing characters, sacred stones and peaks, and llama- and orchid-rich landscapes he encounters in his own wanderings. And while he doesn’t exactly solve the mystery of Machu Picchu, he does cast further light on the different theories surrounding the ruins and adds to the evidence supporting the notion that Machu Picchu was an important part of a complex network of intricately aligned Inca sites.

If you haven’t been to Machu Picchu and environs, this book will inspire you to drop everything and go. And if you’ve already been, Take a Right at Machu Picchu will transport you straight back to those soul-soaring heights.

New Book Roundups:

Around Europe

Everything Beautiful Began After is award-winning author Simon Van Booy’s novel of a love triangle set mostly in Athens. Bulgaria takes center stage in Miroslav Penkov’s collection of short stories, East of the West: A Country in Stories.

Chinese Characters

Michael Levy writes about being an observant Jew teaching English with the Peace Corps in pork-loving rural China in Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion. In her novel Pao, author Kerry Young brings a little-known slice of Jamaica to vivid life, presenting the story of a Chinese boy who flees to the Caribbean island in 1938 with his mother and brother when his father is killed in the Chinese revolution.

Memoirs of a Traveler

David Gessner recounts a canoe trip discovering the wild in an urban area and calls for an engaged, locally based form of activism in My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism. In Boltzmann’s Tomb: Travels in Search of Science, geochemist Bill Green writes about his work in Antarctica and his journeys to sites connected to great scientists, such as London, Vienna, and Prague. NFL linebacker and Travel Channel host Dhani Jones reveals what it takes to be an athlete adventurer in The Sportsman: Unexpected Lessons from an Around-the-World Sports Odyssey. Binyavanga Wainaina’s moving memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, evokes his childhood in Kenya, education in South Africa, re-connection with family in Uganda, and subsequent travels throughout Kenya, capturing the shifting landscapes of Africa with a keen eye and ear and a wide-hearted wisdom.

One Last Thing:

Learning the Language of Love

The first undergraduate summer I lived in Paris, I fell in love with a vibrant young woman from Normandy. The second summer, it was a beauty from the Côte d'Azur. The truth, I realized by the end of that second summer, was that I had fallen in love with Paris. There’s something about that incomparable city that nurtures—breathes—romance, and so it’s the perfect setting for Ellen Sussman’s lovely, lyrical new novel, French Lessons. In one day in Paris, three Americans explore the city with their tutors. As they wander the luminous streets, sharing secrets about themselves over lessons in language, history, culture, and cuisine, that living classroom sets two lessons into stark relief: the true source of their yearnings and the redemptive resiliency of their hearts.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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